The highly reliable purring German nuclear power plants – 4200 megawatts secured power plant capacity – are to be shut down in the middle of winter. The availability of this service could decide on stability or grid collapse in our country. When will the government finally overcome its irrational nuclear fear?

Germany is stuck in a self-inflicted energy crisis. All federal governments have been to blame since the proclamation of the energy transition under Chancellor Gerhard Schröder and his Green Deputy Joschka Fischer. All have cemented Germany’s structural dependence on fossil fuels. Because the main goal of the German energy transition was not only the promotion of renewable energies, but also the nuclear phase-out.

This meant that climate-friendly nuclear power failed as a backup for the increasingly dominant but weather-dependent renewables. Nobody thought about storage technologies. Coal and Russian natural gas did the job.

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Even the traffic light government has not changed anything. Gas as a safeguard for renewables formed the backbone of their climate strategy until the Ukraine war. This is no longer possible. Now Robert Habeck, who wanted to become a climate minister, is mobilizing old coal-fired power plants in his need. But he does not want to give up the nuclear phase-out. Nuclear fear was the Greens’ most powerful mobilization tool for years. So close to the historic victory over German nuclear power, one does not want to admit that this path might have been wrong.

This creates self-contradictions. We don’t have a power problem, says the government, but recommends that companies purchase emergency generators. Every kilowatt hour of electricity is haggled in order to save on gas-fired power generation – but the 33 billion kilowatt hours of nuclear power that our last nuclear power plants can produce per year are said to be irrelevant.

The failure of reactors in France is lamented as a destabilizing factor – but the highly reliable German plants purring along, 4200 megawatts of guaranteed power plant capacity, are to be shut down in the middle of winter. But the availability of this service could decide on stability or network collapse.

Only a revolutionary act can help out of this danger: Away with the nuclear phase-out, nuclear fear – no thanks! This act would have two benefits: energy security and credibility. We would have more electricity in the grid – and politicians could convincingly link the climate target with security of supply instead of playing them off against each other. Because nuclear power has the same CO balance as wind power – but runs as reliably as coal.

Six German nuclear power plants are theoretically still operational because they have operating licenses, three of which are connected to the grid. First of all, the federal government would have to sit down with the operators and take a technical inventory: How much electricity could the current and possibly also the revitalized reactors contribute? Were interventions made in the plants shut down in 2021 that would prevent them from starting up again? How can we prepare facilities and personnel for the resumption of power operations? The government could commission its own body of experts, the Reactor Safety Commission, which it has so far ignored, to provide technical support.

Anna Veronika Wendland is a German historian of technology and Eastern Europe. She works at the Herder Institute for Historical East Central European Research in Marburg and completed her habilitation at the University of Marburg with a thesis on reactor safety in Eastern Europe and Germany.

Wendland is a member of the German-Ukrainian Commission of Historians (DUHK). In July 2020, together with Rainer Moormann, she published a memorandum in which nuclear power is ascribed a decisive role in the energy transition. She is also the author of the book “Nuclear Power? Yes Please!”.

At the same time, she would have to introduce a bill to amend the Atomic Energy Act in the Bundestag. So you could give the nuclear power plant permission to operate or extend it. At the same time, the electricity companies could already order new fuel elements. For the transition, the plants would have to make do with stretched operation and newly assembled reactor cores from existing fuel elements by summer 2023. Statements are coming from the industry that, in an emergency, new fuel elements could be delivered in less than a year.

At the same time, the relevant ministries should announce the most important message: Evidence instead of nuclear fear! The Reactor Safety Commission certifies that our plants are not threatened by a Fukushima thanks to their robust protection against extreme weather and power failures. They are also immune to crashes from large commercial aircraft.

nuclear power? Yes, please!

In the running nuclear power plants, there were no compromises in terms of safety due to the phase-out date, the prescribed tests and maintenance are carried out as usual. In the systems that will be shut down in 2021, these test cycles would have to be resumed if they are not still active anyway. The “periodic safety check” to be made up for in some systems is a higher-level analysis procedure. It is carried out during operation in order to gain additional knowledge about plant safety, but does not require a plant downtime.

The energy emergency dictates: It is now high time to initiate the extension of the service life. It should last until the mid-2030s in order to give operators and employees planning security. Because the lack of secure and at the same time climate-friendly power plant capacity will be the dominant issue of the energy transition for years to come.